Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2015.02.34 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.02.34

Vasileios Ch. Petrakos, Πρόχειρον Αρχαιολογικόν 1828 – 2012 (2 vols.). Βιβλιοθήκη της εν Αθήναις Αρχαιολογικής Εταιρείας, 283-284.   Athens:  Archaeological Society at Athens, 2013.  Pp. viii, 739.  ISBN 9786185047009.  €52.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Christina Souyoudzoglou-Haywood, University College Dublin (

The history of Greek archaeology makes a fascinating story, particularly as it is inevitably interwoven with the historical and political events of the turbulent times that characterize the history of modern Greece. The hefty two-volume Archaeological Handbook 1828-2012, written by an archaeologist with many years of experience in the Greek system, is a significant work on the subject. Based on the contents of previously published articles by the author, particularly in the journal Mentor and in Greek newspapers, and together with new texts written specifically for the book, it aims at a comprehensive survey of the whole history of the structure and administration of state archaeology in Greece, from the birth of the Greek state to the present day.

Part I, entitled “Chronography”, consists of 43 chapters, an Introduction and a short Epilogue. The chapters each deal with one period in the life of the Greek Archaeological Service in chronological order. The author names the chapters on the early periods—from the time of the first prime minister, Ioannis Kapodistrias up to World War II (chapters 1-16)— after the heads of the Archaeological Service who were in charge at the particular time. The only exception is chapter 6, a short essay entitled “The repossession of the Acropolis sculptures” (referring to the earliest attempt at this by the Greek state, in 1936), which sits rather awkwardly among the rest. The middle part of the book covers the period of World War II in seven chapters (chapters 17-23). Four of these treat the German occupation (chapters entitled Occupation I- Occupation IV), one focuses on the work of the Archaeologike Etaireia (1941-1945), one on the Liberation (1944-45), and the last is entitled ‘After the War’. The period from 1958 to the present day occupies 12 chapters (chapters 31-43) and more than a third of the volume. The headings of these chapters differ from the earlier ones. They include titles such as ‘The court has been formed’, ‘Familiarity with the scandals’, ‘Legality and morality’. These chapters correspond to the period of the author’s career as an archaeologist, and the headings clearly reflect the increasingly personal tone adopted by him in his narrative, about which more will be said below.

Each of the chapters is divided into subsections, many of which are just one page or less long (although some are much longer). These subsections, which bear individual headings, range in subject from cultural landmarks or political events, the reports of significant archaeological excavations, appointments, actions, resignations or deaths of staff, to the passing of laws or the publication of influential books or journals. This fragmentation is helpful for navigating this massive work. The style of the sections varies from that of an encyclopedia entry to a journalistic article or note.

The book’s main focus is the state Archaeological Service which was established in 1828, at the time of the foundation of the Greek state. It concerns itself mainly with the management, the people and the politics of the Service, and only to a very limited extent with its scientific and scholarly contribution to the discipline of classical archaeology. Although the state machine is the main focus, the establishment, work, fortunes and histories of the foreign schools and institutes of archaeology in Greece also find a place in the discussion in the context of the events at a particular point in time. Relevant subsections include copious and up-to-date lists of the directors of a number of these institutions (French, American, British, German, Austrian) and lists and discussions of excavations carried out by them. Considerable insights are also offered into the history, contribution to Greek archaeology and diachronic role of the Archaiologike Etaireia (established as a supporting organization for the Service shortly after its own foundation), of which the author has been the General Secretary since 1988).1

The history of the first century of the Archeological Service, with the foundation of the first museum and appointments of a General Director (Γενικός Έφορος) and other Directors, which will form the basic structure of the Service, the key concerns and activities of the time, the prominent excavations, publications and personalities behind them, which are recounted in the first chapters of Part I, have been the subject of earlier writings,2 including some by the author himself.3 Some less widely known episodes of interest are also related in this part of the book: for example, the Greek government’s gift of a marble slab from the Parthenon to the USA in 1854 for incorporation in the Washington Memorial, with an inscribed epigram in honor of George Washington (and of a similar slab later given to the Germans for the carving of the bust of Heinrich Brunn, an eminent archaeologist, collector and professor at the University of Munich). These episodes are enlightening in the context of the larger discussion of the symbolic status that the Parthenon acquired internationally in the course of the 19th century.

The chapters covering the relatively short period of World War II, the German/Italian occupation of Greece and the liberation (1940-1945) are fleshed out into approximately one hundred pages. Using citations from archival documents, correspondence and reports, the author offers an enlightening account of these difficult times, during which, although the Archaeological Service continued to exist, it was in practice unable to operate effectively. No Greek excavations took place during this period and the protection of the monuments that was a core function of the Service was hampered by obstructions and interventions by the occupying forces. As soon as war against Italy was declared, the Ministry set up committees and issued detailed instructions for the hiding of all antiquities for their protection (in basements— under sandbags or in crates— or in the safeboxes of banks for items of precious metal), while the museums were to remain closed. The author explains how, in the years to follow, a tug-of-war developed between the Kunstschutz, the archaeological body set up by the Germans, and the Service, with repeated requests by the former to retrieve and display the hidden antiquities for the benefit of the soldiers. Among the other themes that run through these chapters, emphasis is given to the ‘illegal’ (i.e. without Greek permit) excavations carried out largely (but not exclusively) by German archaeologists , the movement of antiquities outside the country, and the complex situation that the long-established German and Italian archaeological institutes found themselves in because of the occupation. A number of passages deal with the damage to sites and particularly the state of the Acropolis, where battlements were constructed using architectural pieces from the ancient buildings, and where the soldiers entertained ‘loose women’, scenaria which are reminiscent of the earlier Turkish occupation. Further damage inflicted on the Acropolis by the English and the Greeks during the liberation and the so-called ‘December events’ (December 1944 - January 1945) are documented with a number of reports, some of which are published in full here.

The period that followed the liberation sees a gradual return to normality. The account is punctuated by key events such as the reopening of the National Museum (1948), the re-establishment of the competitive appointment of staff, the beginning of excavations, and the gradual improvement of finances. Despite the politically troubled times, the period 1960-1965 is highlighted as a period of sound reforms, with the re-establishment of the position of the General Director of Antiquities (Γενικός Έφορος Αρχαιοτήτων), the appointment to this position of P. Papademetriou, and the transfer of the administration of the Service from the Ministry of Education to the Ministry of the President. What the author calls ‘the resurrection’ of the Service was short-lived, however. The coup of the colonels on the 21st of April, 1967 initiated a period of decline. Destabilizing changes were introduced: the appointment of a General Inspector of Antiquities (Γενικός Επιθεωρητής Αρχαιοτήτων) to replace the office of General Director— the position was held by Sp. Marinatos for most of the period— the return of the administration of the Service to the Ministry of Culture and Sciences (formerly Ministry of Education), the fragmentation of the Archaeological Council, decentralization of the departments (to be subsequently reversed), and the appointment of archaeologists without competitive selection. Some new departures are seen in a more positive light. The most significant was arguably the setting up of a conservation program for the Acropolis, in the wake of the UNESCO report of 1971, but also the mounting of exhibitions and the approval of loans of antiquities to foreign countries for such purposes, as well as the many excavations and publications.

The true beginning of the deterioration of the Service, according to the author, can be pinpointed in 1981 (the year the ΠΑΣΟΚ party came to power). The detrimental administrative changes and innovations of each and every successive government up to 2012 are covered, sometimes in considerable detail, in the last 12 chapters of the volume. Among the issues at the core of the author’s critique are: the abolition of the position of the General Inspector of Antiquities, the changes of the staffing structure of the Departments (Εφορείαι), the greater involvement of politicians in the Service and in archaeology, the apparently self-serving actions by some individuals in responsible positions, the hiring of poorly qualified staff, and the implementation of controversial employment laws. Although the author’s contentions are supported by first- hand information and original documentation, they often fail to convince. The reason for this lies with the deeply personal angle and even embittered perspective from which the events are viewed. The author often delves unnecessarily lengthily into personality conflicts and entanglements, or into what he considers (even if often rightly) as misguided decisions. The many achievements and successes of Greek archaeology, which, by his own admission, continue from the previous period, are rarely given much consideration. Instead, the cases where the author holds strongly negative views, such as, for example, the conundrum of the construction of the New Acropolis Museum, are dealt with in such lengthy and detailed exposés as to exasperate even the most interested reader.

Part II, entitled “Thematological”, is a useful supplement to Part I. It is a compilation of various thematic sections, including the lists of all archaeologists of the Service up to 1960 (significantly up to the year when the appointments were made by regular competitive examinations), and the list of Heads of the Service until the abolition of the position in 1982. The archaeologists are also given very brief bibliographical notes. There follows a section on the Archaeological Subdivisions of Greece into Ephoreiai (based on geography and discipline) with lists of relevant articles which appeared in the government publications over time, and a section on ‘Archaeological Laws’ up to 2012. The last sections include a critical appraisal of the ‘Reconstructions of Ancient Monuments’, with regard to which the author has already expressed strong views in Part I. The last part, entitled ‘The Excavations and their Publication’, does not in fact list the excavations of the Ephoreiai (just a few are mentioned in Part I) due to their large number. The list consists of the titles of journals, magazines and book series, both Greek and international, where the reader can find information on these excavations. The index is largely restricted to proper names.

The author has chosen an expansive and wordy style for his narrative, which becomes more personal in the last quarter of the book. Throughout the account he does not shy away from the politics behind the actions, or from controversies and clashes and conflicts between people. Although his accounts frequently make compelling reading, his style is not what one would normally expect from an ideally balanced analysis of the history of archaeology in Greece. Clearly the author did not set out with this aim in mind. All things considered, in this reviewer’s opinion, this voluminous work should have been two separate books: one which would have given the balanced narrative that the history of Greek archaeology deserves, and which the author’s deep knowledge puts him in a unique position to write, and a separate volume of his memoires, written from his personal experiences.

Because of the wealth of information collected, and even more because it includes information that cannot be found elsewhere, this work will become indispensable reading for anyone working in Greek archaeology in Greece today. Naturally the readership will be predominantly among Greek archaeologists, but foreign archaeologists working in Greece will also find useful material and references. Needless to say, readers will prefer to use this hefty book in a library rather than host it on their own bookshelves.


1.   More on the Archaiologiki Etaireia can be found on its excellent site Η εν Αθήναις Αρχαιολογική Εταιρεία
2.   Kόκκου, A. Η μέριμνα για τις αρχαιότητες στην Ελλάδα και τα πρώτα μουσεία, Εκδοτική Ερμής, Αθήνα 1977, and, recently, with an innovative approach, Hamilakis, Y. The Nation and its Ruins: Antiquity, Archaeology, and National Imagination in Greece (Classical Presences), Oxford University Press, Oxford 2009
3.   Πετράκος, Β. Η ελληνική αυταπάτη του Λουδοβίκου Ross, Βιβλιοθήκη της εν Αθήναις Αρχαιολογικής Εταιρείας, Αθήναι 2009.

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